Clutter. Stuff. Junk. Piles of books, magazines and papers. Closets and chests jam-packed with clothes. Drawers full of bits – keys from forgotten locks; buttons from long-gone jackets; old receipts and notes; a dusty throat lozenge; a button; a few elastic bands. Don’t feel guilty: we’ve all got it. Everyone has junk, apart from those unreal robot-like people who live in glossy home magazine minimalism (and frankly, I’m sure they’ve got stuff too – they just have bigger closets!).
You may be attached to your clutter or you may loathe it but, whatever your attitude, you need to clear it. You’ve heard this before; you’ve read it in a host of magazine articles and in every book on feng shui. So why this war on mess? Surely we don’t want our homes to become impersonal empty wildernesses? Well of course not. But there is a world of difference between a home which reflects its owner’s personality in carefully chosen objects, magazines and books and one which is so jam-packed with stuff that your mind reels.
First and foremost it is very hard to feel relaxed and comfortable in a home which is messy. On a physical level, clutter attracts dust which makes many people sneeze or have other allergic reactions. On a psychological level clutter irritates the mind; it reminds us of things which need doing, fixing, finishing, starting even. When our home environment gets “out of control” we feel disordered in ourselves. I find I become depressed and overwhelmed when my study becomes messy and disordered. An hour or two’s ordering and a clear, clean desk makes my whole spirit feel lighter and work progresses as if by magic. International space clearer Karen Kingston puts it this way: “If you have a pile of papers in your room your energy automatically dips because you know it needs attention,” she says, “every time you walk into your home and there are things that need repairing, letters that need answering, junk that needs clearing, your energy can’t flow internally because of what is happening externally.”
However mess and clutter don’t just affect us – they affect the homes we live in. In the dictionary you discover that clutter means confusion, a confused heap, turmoil, din. It is also a variant of “clotter” which means to run into clots. Imagine your home as a body. In our bodies, blood runs through our arteries, veins and capillaries. If, for any reason (smoking, bad diet, too little exercise etc.) these blood vessels become furred and thick walled, the blood cannot pump effectively through the body. If the blockage becomes too extreme, the blood cannot squeeze through. Sluggish blood flow is one of the major causes of blood clots which, in turn, can lead to heart attacks or strokes. In a house the equivalent to life blood is energy, or qi. If the energy in your house cannot circulate easily, it becomes stagnant and sluggish, just like the blood. Nothing affects this subtle energy as much as piles of rubbish or unfinished business. So imagine that all those piles of papers and books, the broken tennis rackets and fishing nets, the drawers stuffed with old clothes are clogging up the arteries of your house. The solution suddenly becomes really obvious: clear them out. Here’s how….
THE BIG TURN-OUT
There is no “correct” way of doing it. Lots of books recommend you take it easy – do a drawer at a time or spend an hour a week. Personally I don’t have the patience for that: I’m a bit of a “plunge in and get it over with” type. Every so often I have either minor or major purges. Something will set me off: I’ll trip over something or have no room to put a book on a shelf, or not be able to find a receipt. My de-cluttering tends to be fast and furious – and very brutal. But that may not be for you. If this is new (or difficult) for you, take it easy. The great thing about de-cluttering is that you can always do more.
Identify all the problem areas. Some will stand out like sore thumbs. But it’s not a case of “out of sight, out of mind”, you need to go beyond cosmetic anti-clutter and check all those hidden places too: behind the sofa; in your closets and cupboards; drawers and dressers; attics, cellars and sheds. It may not be noticeable on a physical level but psychologically it’s still clutter and, however subconsciously, you know it’s there and it’s affecting you.
Decide which area you will tackle first and get prepared. Wear old clothes and bring out a series of cardboard boxes or large trash-bags to sort thing into. Some stuff is pure garbage and the only place for it is the trash. Other things might be useful to someone else and so put them over into one box or bag. Yet more may belong to other people. Sort out everything and then dispose of it in whichever way you choose. I find it helps a lot to think that my old junk will give someone else pleasure so I tend to give all my clutter to charity shops or advertise it on Freecycle. A friend of mine has regular turn-outs and sells it all at a yard sale. The money she makes allows her to keep up her hobby of rummaging for bargains. She loves the pleasure of the hunt and wouldn’t give it up for the world but readily confesses that if she kept everything she bought, she would have no room to move. Another friend who is a complete fashion victim, has a clothes sale at work about four times a year. She sells off her old clothes to colleagues and so helps fund her next shopping trip.
When the junk belongs to your family, I would suggest you give them a certain amount of time (a couple of hours? A weekend?) to claim any belongings they really want. After that, out they go. Playgroups and nursery schools might be grateful for any old toys and games. Clothes might be welcomed at a women’s refuge or a centre for the homeless.
Still finding this hard? Let’s go through the various kinds of clutter….
CLOTHES: It’s tough getting rid of clothes. “It might come back into fashion”; “I’ll be able to wear it when I lose weight” are two common excuses. It’s not just women who hoard clothes either. My husband cleaves to a t-shirt which he wore back in 1976. He won’t let me get rid of his waterproof trousers although he rode his last motorbike twenty years ago. Faded, hole-ridden shirts are sentimental because his mother bought them for him. A certain amount of sentimentality is fine. Keep the dress or shirt you wore for that first date of course; just don’t keep every dress and every shirt you wore for every date. Ask yourself these questions:
- Have you worn it in the last two years?
- Is it out of fashion?
- Is it too big or too small?
- Is it stained or ripped?
- Was it an expensive impulse buy you now regret?
Any of these are good reasons to get it out of your life. It won’t come back into fashion – at least not in the same way. Trust me. There will always be something slightly different: the hem-line will be longer; the sleeves wider; the print will be carnations instead of roses. You can’t win with the fashion business – they don’t make money from people hoarding clothes and anything less than twenty years old will never be fashionable (at least not for another twenty years and are you really prepared to wait that long?).
Okay, so you’re going to diet and get into those old clothes. Great, but why not treat yourself to some new ones when you reach your ideal weight? Use it as an incentive. Clothes that don’t fit will always make you feel guilty and guilt is the very worst way to make yourself lose weight. It doesn’t work. So get rid of them, accept where you are at the moment and as those clothes become too loose, treat yourself to more.
MAGAZINES AND NEWSPAPERS: Pass on to friends (where I live we buy different mags and pass them round). Or offer them to your local hospital, surgery etc. Take them to a recycling centre if they’re really trashed. If you tell yourself you keep magazines for the recipes, go through and cut out the ones you want (be honest now – which will you really use?) and paste them in a cook’s notebook. Do the same with gardening tips. You have to realise one essential thing about most magazines: they repeat the same features every year so you won’t really be missing anything. If you don’t believe me, check a few: gardens are seasonal creatures and the same tips (planting bulbs, dividing perennials, choosing roses etc. etc.) crop up every year at around the same time. House magazines will always run another feature on choosing a kitchen; doing up a bathroom; planning a conservatory (because they attract advertisers that way) so you won’t miss out if you throw away a whole back catalogue. Women’s magazines are no different. I wrote for women’s magazines for years and was regularly asked to write the same features again and again: how to revamp your sex life; how to give your relationship a MOT and so on).
The only things that change are news and fashion. If you’re a teenager you might need to keep abreast of the latest trend. If you’re a grown-up you can catch up on the latest fashions at the hairdressers (much cheaper than buying all the mags). But if you do buy the mags they will be out of date within three months – so bin them.
Newspapers need regular pruning too. I remember a childhood friend’s house which had piles of newspapers stacked on the floor around each wall. The place smelt musty and dusty – and the family never seemed happy. Her father said he needed them for reference. Nowadays with good public libraries and the internet, there’s no excuse for hoarding papers. Take cuttings, if you feel the need, and file them neatly. Then recycle the papers once a week.
PAPERS: You can’t escape bits of paper. Bills, receipts, notes, letters and circulars breed like rabbits. But you can control them. Always tick the box asking that your details do not go on mailing lists when you send off for products by mail order or enter competitions. Put junk mail straight in the bin – or send it straight back saying you don’t want it and to take you off their list. One useful tip I learned from a time management course is to open your post standing or sitting by your wastepaper bin.
Unless it needs a reply or is really useful put it straight in the bin. Now you’re left with the (hopefully) essential stuff. Here it helps to have a system. In an ideal world, my time manager taught me, you will deal with every piece of paper as it arrives. But who lives in an ideal world? So buy some of those attractive storage boxes – or cover shoe boxes with fabric or paint. You could have one for bills, one for tax receipts, one for letters and so on. As they arrive put them in the relevant box. But don’t forget to deal with them. Once they’re dealt with either get rid of them or file them if need be.
I would suggest every house has its own “essential papers” file, containing insurance policies, mortgage documents, investments, tax details, licenses and guarantees, etc., all neatly filed away. Use box files or a filing cabinet for other essential reference material (but make sure it really is essential). Go through your files once a year and check it’s still valid. When I checked my filing cabinets there were faxes so old they had gone blank and stacks of out of date information.
BOOKS: I’m not going to suggest you get rid of your precious library by any means. Books can furnish a home and they impart knowledge, creativity, imagination and escapism. But they do need to be kept in their place. It’s worth investing in attractive bookshelves and making a feature out of your books. Check that you need them all. Reference books, classics, old favourites, sentimental tomes – fine. But old pot-boilers you’ll never read again; holiday trash novels; out of date guides? Give them to the charity shop and make room for more.
KITCHEN CLUTTER: Kitchens are store-houses for clutter: gadgets you never use; unwanted presents (fondue sets, waffle makers, woks etc.); burnt-out saucepans; non-stick frying pans which now stick; mugs you loathe? We’ve all got them. If they’re broken, bin them. If you simply hate them, see if anyone you know would like them, or advertise in the local paper. Or donate to a good cause. Anything that’s chipped or cracked or broken simply isn’t hygienic – so in the bin with it.
MISCELLANEOUS: Photos? Spend an evening sorting out the ones you love and put them in albums or in a special box. The ones where you look grim; the fifth attempt at that sunset; the hazy back of head shot? In the bin. Odd ear-rings? You’ll never find the other one so bin them or give them to a children’s play-group for dressing up. Old keys, odd fuses, screws, nails and so on. Get rid of them – unless you want to put them tidily in a tool box. Cosmetics? You shouldn’t keep cosmetics for years – like medicines, they have a use-by date. If you’ve had any skincare products over a year, bin them. Ditto make-up you’ve had for more than two years. Medicines? Check their use-by dates and sling the old ones.
By now you should have acres of extra space. Your home should be feeling clearer, more open, more expansive – and so should your thoughts. However I’m willing to bet there are still some problems….
- Stuff that’s too expensive to throw out. You don’t want it but it cost so much you can’t bear to think of getting rid of it. OK, try to sell it. Get some of your money back. Or give it to someone who would really love it but couldn’t normally afford something like that. Enjoy the warm feeling you get from helping someone else – an added bonus.
- Nostalgic, family things. These are really ghastly. The old heirloom you loathe and abhor but don’t dare get rid of because the family would be horrified or you would feel guilty. Don’t feel guilty; just accept that it isn’t right for you. Is there someone else in the family who would like it? If no-one wants it, even when you threaten to chuck it, then is it really such a precious heirloom or are you just the mug who has been dumped with everyone’s collective guilt? If so, sell it. Treat the family to a celebration dinner with the proceeds.
- Unwanted gifts. Some people say you should be brutally honest and tell the person that it’s not your taste but frankly I think that’s rude. I confess this is one area I don’t deal with too well. I keep the gift and even bring it out when the giver comes around. However I do have quite a few “accidents” and sadly things do get broken and need to be thrown out. A fudge, I know, but none of us is perfect.
- If you get really stuck at any point, stop and think how wonderful your house would look without the clutter. Close your eyes and imagine a home that feels free and easy and welcoming. The Chinese sages say that when you throw out clutter you are making room for something new and exciting to come into your life. Hold onto that thought as you bravely clear out the old to make way for the new.
This post is excerpted from my book Spirit of the Home.